Film Review: Alien: Covenant

by Chris Piper on May 19, 2017

In space, simply scary beats too much talking

The crew of the Covenant, in better times.

Alien: Covenant, the eighth of the Alien series of films, feels like an old friend from whom you’ve long since grown apart, but with whom you’ll still grab a beer and listen to the same stories and jokes. The film checks all the series boxes, and delivers all the same jolts, but ultimately cannot break out of its own constraints.  

In the current offering, the spaceship Covenant is on a mission to colonize very far away Origae-6 with thousands of hyper-sleeping voyagers just waiting for the chance to eat terrible food, never get to go outside, and probably die in any of a number of terrible colonist accidents. A crew of seven couples and one android is shepherding the colonists to their new Eden. As the crew of couples itself sleeps in cryo-stasis (and let’s hope dream of each other), they are cared for by cybernetic manservant Walter, played with requisite physical tension by Michael Fassbender. In space, bad things as well as plot points happen very quickly. No sooner has a “stellar ignition” killed crewmembers and colonists, then what has to be the most random mysterious message in the history of random mysterious messages, coupled with the thinnest of story justifications, sends the Covenant on a detour toward an unknown but perfectly life-sustaining nearby planet.

The now very awake and very crabby crew prepare to take a lander to the planet, and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper waste no time in separating some couples (he’s on the orbiter, she’s on the landing ship!) to heighten the dramatic tension, or at least to keep the bickering to a minimum. The film has a lot of grotesque deaths to get to, so we never learn much about the landing party apart from that years of hyper sleep haven’t diminished their physiques, or given them the ability to avoid obviously deadly dark places.

As a scout stops to have a smoke (after years of cryo-stasis, what a craving!), he steps on a spore-filled pod. If you’re allergic to pollen, just skip this film, because what happens next will infect your dreams for years.

Echos of the film Aliens in Alien: Covenant.

The party, led by Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) stumble headlong into some very serious trouble. Total annihilation is prevented only by their escape to a murky redoubt inhabited by a mysterious hooded figure who turns out be be none other than David (also played by Fassbender), the android from Prometheus (2012), who has been alone on the planet for ten years – a lot of time to stew over the very imperfect nature of his creators and near perfect nature of other creatures.

Older android David and and newer android Walter circle each other, and treat us to some ideas about the limits of adding human characteristics to androids. David and Walter differ violently on the place of human beings in the universe. David’s true intentions toward human beings are not, shall we say, life affirming, and what’s left of the crew must escape to the orbiting Covenant.

It’s hard to believe that thirty-eight years have come and gone since Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley grappled with nasty female stereotypes and a nastier xenomorph (yep, there’s official name for that thing with the big head, type acid blood, and overactive salivary gland) aboard the Nostromo in Alien (1979). Lukewarm at best with critics, Alien connected with audiences through a deft use of science fiction and horror, and director Ridley Scott astutely captured late-’70s anxieties about ambitious women in the pinched decisiveness of Ripley. To the film critic Pauline Kael, “her surprising, small, tense mouth holds all the tension in the story.” The James Cameron-helmed Aliens (1986)  traded suspense for action, and the haunted house of a spaceship for the war zone of an overrun planet. In the years between Alien and Aliens, Weaver’s Ripley was echoed and magnified in other films into the action heroine archetype. Ripley in Aliens is permanently scarred by her ordeal, but obsessed with destroying xenomorphs – a cautionary tale of focussing too much on work over family.

Ellen Ripley balances work and family in the film Aliens.

The structure of the series in place, Ripley again took control in David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992), which concerned itself too much with the problem of how to confront a creature of intergalactic nastiness without so much as a blow torch. By the time of Alien Resurrection (1997), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Ripley is literally and figuratively nothing more than a clone of her earlier self. Alien vs. Predator (2004), adapted from comic books, proved that not all comic books should be made into films, yet spawned the sequel Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007).

Most film series have their thematic requirements. Star Wars films play against a backdrop of good vs evil. Bond films are always about the complex nature of duty. Without these larger themes, the Aliens series has asked its audience to make larger and larger leaps between installments. With Prometheus, Ridley Scott attempted a major reboot: to place the xenomorphs within a much larger story of the Engineers who created them, and then sought to destroy humanity.

It’s all a bit much if you’re just looking for a bit of Alien fun, and, if that’s all you want, then you’re in luck, because with Alien: Covenant, Scott has returned to the formula of the first four films, with one big exception.

Ripley’s action heroine has been replaced by two dueling androids. Walter, who exists to serve, and David, engineered to be more human-like in every way. They present us with the question: What is it to be human? (A question that recent TV series like Battlestar Galactica and Westworld have explored in great depth). Scott tries to explore this question and bring us back to the familiarity of an Alien film. The result feels like a film that strains at points to break the confines of the series requirements, but, ultimately, must settle on just giving us a good scare.

The film does find firmer ground with Waterston’s Daniels, who is softer, more hesitant, and less able to resist the horror of what’s happening to her, but just as able as Ripley to deal with it. She’s a survivor not because of she’s shut herself off from the terror, but because she can learn from it.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels.

Also worth mentioning is Danny McBride as Tennessee, the pilot who must help Daniels back to safety aboard the Covenant. He manages to dust the film with just the slightest amount of levity, and so leaves much more of an impression than do the others, just waiting their turn to be spiked, or exploded, or in other horrific ways turned into nothing more than momentary cheap thrills.  

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Alien Covenant opens today in various Bay Area theaters.

 

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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